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Hormones in Meat

Synthetic sex hormones are given to sheep and cattle to promote rapid growth and increased milk production, fulfilling a demand for cheap meat and milk.

However, concerns have been raised about potential health risks of using synthetic hormones in meat production, a practice which is common in the U.S. and Canada but banned in the European Union.

Research suggests that estrogenic additives in meat may affect natural hormone levels, increasing the risk for certain cancers.

The most direct evidence of this effect comes from a recent large-scale research review undertaken by the Breast Cancer Fund, which found a link between hormone use in meat and milk production and increased breast cancer risk (Gray, 2010). There is also indirect evidence from studies of other hormone sources.

For example, a synthetic estrogen used during the 1960s was withdrawn when the daughters of treated women suffered an increased risk of vaginal cancer and research has shown that consuming hormonal contraceptives increases the risk for breast cancer (Cornell University, 2000).

Alarms have also been raised about the possibility that hormone residues in meat and milk have been triggering early puberty in girls. However, there has not been sufficient research undertaken to comprehensively prove or disprove this claim.

Another problem with the use of hormones in meat and milk production is that they can negatively impact the health of the animals that receive them. Hormone-treated cows are more likely to develop painful mastitis (udder infection). Treatment of such infections requires antibiotics, and excessive use of antibiotics contributes to the evolution of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that kill many people each year.

Agricultural interests have resisted ending the use of hormones in meat and milk production because being able to boost yields in this way increases profits. The best way to avoid consuming hormones in meat and milk is to buy products that are hormone free or certified organic (organic farming methods prohibit the use of synthetic hormones).

Cancer Prevention Coalition, “American Beef: Why is it Banned in Europe? Hormones In Meat Fact Sheet,” 2003.
Gandhi, R., PhD, & Snedeker, S.M., PhD, “Consumer Concerns About Hormones in Food: Fact Sheet #37,” Cornell University, June 2000.
Gray, J., PhD, State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment, Sixth Edition, 2010.
Health Canada, “Questions and Answers – Hormonal Growth Promoters,” 25 September 2012.
Roosevelt/Grandview, M., “The Grass-Fed Revolution,” Time Magazine, 11 June 2006.
Weil, A., MD, “Avoiding Hormones in Meat and Poultry?” DrWeil.com, 31 October 2006.

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